Just how badly St. Petersburg's Williams Park needs attention is clear from the arrest reports. A police sweep of the park last week resulted in 19 drug arrests for the sale and possession of cocaine, crack cocaine, methadone, morphine, hydromorphone, suboxone, heroin, oxycodone and marijuana. Supporters of reclaiming the park for law-abiding residents like open-air markets, but these are not the wares they have in mind.
The arrests followed a St. Petersburg Police Department undercover operation in which officers bought a literal illicit pharmacy of drugs. "They (the homeless) shouldn't feel comfortable breaking the law in a city park," Assistant Police Chief Dave DeKay said. But that is the problem. Some of the homeless descending on Williams Park are all too comfortable spending their days loitering, panhandling, drinking, fighting and dealing drugs. In the short run, the park cannot be reclaimed until the illegal activity is rooted out.
In the long term, though, regular police sweeps are not the answer to improving Williams Park. It is going to take a more comprehensive effort to address the issues facing the homeless to get them on their feet and out of the park without violating their constitutional rights. It is going to take moving the bus shelters adjacent to the park so it isn't walled off. And greater mental health and job counseling services should be a priority.
Pinellas County and St. Petersburg have made progress on homeless issues, including opening Safe Harbor. Williams Park reinforces how much more work there is to be done.